Thursday, 4 December 2014

Atheist Reformation

My short but violent road to renouncing my ideological commitment to neo-atheism was not an easy one. I didn't like it for a long time, & then once my experiences & education forced me to accept it, I sought some way to make a compromise, but there was precious little compromise to be had. Ultimately, I had to abandon it wholesale. My atheism is now nothing more that a shallow grave where the part of me that could have had faith in something is buried.

Neo-atheism isn't just a disavowal of the currently-popular organised religions, any more than being an anarchist merely requires not voting for major political parties. It is a repudiation of the very possibility of these ideas, in much the same way an anarchist resists the very possibility of centralised government. Neo-atheism is a reaction against the very notion of faith, the possibility of extending possibility to anything that isn't physically measurable. I never understood the hold-outs who expressed some kind of "agnosticism." I regarded it to be some kind of ideological or metaphysical bet-hedging, but in reality it's just atheism without the zealotry.

Now I'm left with faith in nothing but the measurable, the visible, & the narrowly possible. In essence, the domains of the physical sciences. There is no wonder here, no possibility, no real cause for hope. "Maybe there's something wondrous out there?" The atheist ponders, staring into the vacuum of space in a crude aping of spiritual rapture - seeking hope in the most hostile, anti-human environment outside of an active volcano - all the while unavoidably reflecting on their own inability to think beyond such a limited scope of potential, & pretending this limitation makes them superior. This is little different to the priest who take a vow of celibacy, & fashions this lost element of their humanity as a sign of superior dedication. And it is! It is a symbol of their dedication to God, & the ideals that He represents. What is the atheist sacrificing their faith in service to? What kind of dedication are they enacting?

For me, I guess it was mostly that I wanted to be dedicated to something, but faith is embarrassing when you've the limited imagination of the materialist. Things that don't make material sense are, after all, "magic" - stories for children. I didn't want to be a children. Also, as a reactionary progressive by nature, the stale conservatism of Christianity was a serious turn-off. Community itself was also never an attraction to me. Nevertheless, I longed for metaphysics, without even knowing what the concept meant.

Unfortunately, "more physics" is by far the least uplifting, enlightening, spiritual, or interesting form of metaphysics humanity has come up with. Only the dustbowl marriage of liberal capitalism to its corpse bride of scientistic Enlightenment could birth such a bankrupt understanding of the universe. And sure enough, as explained by James Hennessy in this Jacobin article more expertly than I could have, the interests of liberal capitalism & neo-atheism align almost in spite of themselves. What matters is not that Sam Harris is a bloodthirsty sociopath, or that Dwakins is a simpleton, or that Hitchens was as eloquent an apologist for imperialist authority as Kissinger. What matters is that their core beliefs - their total lack of faith in anything grander than dirt - is like a waterslide that, scrabble though they might, inevitably dumps them into a materialistic brutality.

Whatever good intentions these men might have, whatever the good character of ideological neo-atheists or militant anti-theists or whatever you want to call them, your metaphysical beliefs - what you place your faith in - is what protects you from the brutish & hollow realities of a universe governed by selective forces, by energy reacting to simple laws, by meat things rubbing up against each other.

I no longer have much truck with criticising the fundamental metaphysics of others. Their politics, sure, but even when I can see those politics stemming directly from their metaphysical assumptions - as is the case with Hitchens, Dwakins, et al - challenging those beliefs is a waste of time. Beyond that, a war over metaphysics is a permanent war, it's a war on a certain type of person, not a particular belief or a resource or some political grievance. I prefer to keep conflicts as specific as possible. Political struggles are difficult enough without expanding their scope outwards to include more or less everything of substance about a person.

So then why am I doing so right now, in this very post? Because these are my beliefs. Atheism, for better or worse, is my metaphysic - an empty hole where my faith should be. It is my religion, & I will criticise its doctrines as I see fit, with the righteous zeal of any True Believer. Not merely because I'm allowed to, but because to do so is my responsibility. No one properly understands the hollow emptiness of atheism without fully accepting it into their heart. Without living it, without letting it form the basis for your understanding of every thing, you have no basis to critique it to the depth that I can. It is, at its core, utterly nihilistic - it preaches that with our deaths, everything about our selves will be permanently extinguished, that we are nothing more than animated meat, following a series of biological impulses, chemical reactions, & physical laws.

There's a profound self-hate to this doctrine, an automatic misery that applies to all aspects of life that most of us cope with by simply pretending it isn't there. Some take solace in their intellectual superiority, like a priest taking pride in his willpower to abstain from sex. Others use what I call the YOLO Doctrine, which is to simply live this life to the Max & pretend that when death comes, they won't be gripped with the Fear. This is no ordinary fear, either. This is the despairing, immiserating Fear of oblivion that moved Lovecraft to write his Cthulian horrors - implacable & unknowable, a direct repudiation of the rationalist order that the Enlightenment respected above all else, & which justifies the neo-atheists in their lack of metaphysical imagination. The absolute nothingness of non-material existence.

No matter how much you learn about the materials of the universe, no matter how far you look into the cosmos, no matter how deep into the space between particles or into the possibilities of mathematics you go, you can never reach beyond the Cthulian nightmares occupying the darkness beyond What You Can Know. They represent oblivion, the inescapable final destination for the death-cultists of the New Atheism. Dwakins derides the Christian God as a "god of the gaps", as it were, as the convenient filler explanation for any uncertainty. Because Dwakins is an idiot, & his fellow atheists are also idiots, we fail to understand: as you stare into the nothingness of those gaps, the nothingness stares back into you. Christians aren't afraid of ignorance, they're afraid of becoming monsters. They're afraid of becoming Atheists.

Nietzsche foretold our coming, & he saw in us a chance to rise above the weaknesses of Christianity's compassion & privileging of the weak. So far, as the guiding metaphysicians of Western imperialism, we atheists have done our job well. We chase child-molesting pastors with an Inquisitorial glee, all the while indifferently dropping cluster-bombs on children & drowning refugees in the ocean, knowing full well no higher authority will ever hold us to account. It is no coincidence that Sam Harris' atheism lets him talk calmly about turning Saudi Arabia into a bowl of glass - that is what his beliefs have conditioned him to do. For the atheist, death is the great equaliser, its inevitability divorcing it from any possibility of tragedy. It is an escape from responsibility, not an arrival at judgment. It is also, perhaps most distastefully, what allows our leaders to commit these atrocities with their mouths full of scripture. In a secular society, there is nothing to fear from religious heresy.

With no God to judge us, nothing is true, & everything is permitted. So we sit in our tiny secular universe, devoid of wonder or possibility, reflecting on horrors from the mechanised hell of the Holocaust, to the destructive wizardry of nuclear weapons, to the clinical terror of long-range missile strikes, to the detached banality of drone assassinations, and we wonder - why are things so awful? Why can't we address climate change? Why do all these religious people hate us so much? Why am I so depressed even though I did everything I was supposed to do? There are holes in us that no amount of sugary foods or internet pornography or exquisitely-produced melodrama can fill.

The most chilling part of this ignorance is its genuineness, which I can attest because I feel it too. I don't feel like, in order to be moral, I need the guidance of some higher being threatening me with punishments or tempting me with rewards. The thing is, though - and this is something Christians can't really say, so I'll say it for them - you do. You clearly do, because your behaviour is monstrous beyond anything committed in the history of time. The scale on which we deal death is quite literally without parallel, and it scarcely seems to register with us at all. For the atheist, death is a terrifying inevitability, & we don't want to think about it, so we don't. For the atheist, killing an "insurgent" via a video game attached to a killer robot is, ultimately, just turning a clock forward 10, 20, 40 years. Death comes for us all - you'd like it to be later rather than sooner, but beyond that...we're all just dust, on a long enough timeline.

It takes concepts like ensoulment & divine judgment to make us think of anything beyond that, and these are concepts that you can't internalise simply on the basis of utility. Sure, they might be useful from a cultural perspective - I pontificate as my democratically elected leader sends my fellow Australians to Iraq to kill brown people I know nothing about - but that doesn't restore my ability to be spiritual or whatever. That nerve cluster was long ago severed & cauterised in the searing-hot rhetoric of the neo-atheist writers who oversaw my intellectual awakening. So what am I supposed to do now?

I honestly don't know, but at the very least we need to confront the reality: secular atheism has left us morally bankrupt, entirely at the mercy of imperialist forces of capitalist materialism & scientistic rationalism. The wonder is stripped from our lives & replaced with plastic toys & bright murder simulators, & anything more meaningful than negative gearing is met with the weary disinterest of people who truly believe they are headed to an inescapable oblivion either way, where everything they care about will vanish to such a totalising extent they can't even imagine it. It's time we confronted, honestly, the reality of our terrifying death-driven metaphysic, & give some serious intellectual effort to a Reformation of our own.


  1. This is not really a defence of neo-atheism, more of a response of my personal take on faith, and how I interpret yours. If I confuse your ideas with the criticism of neo-atheism, sorry!

    No wonder in the physical sciences
    To be blunt, sorry that nature isn’t magical enough for you, buddy. Sorry that all plants, animals, the Earth (and the driving forces behind them) are too plain-jane for you. Perhaps less mature atheists may look to the stars, seeking the infinite possibilities that may be, but really, the shit in front of you now, natural or man-made, is pretty flippin’ amazing. I would say it’s a hard sell to be bored by the world presented to you.
    Furthermore, any wonderment derived by those with faith should be assumed to be falsely obtained (since, from our perspective, no god exists) - so either it’s not worth attainment(?), or we can (as similar material beings) equally achieve it ourselves via other means.

    Reflecting on my inability to reflect upon complexities greater than comprehension
    I do this every now and then, and I suppose it does imbue a sense of intellectualism (“surely others have not considered they cannot consider it all!”). But I don’t really see it as a sacrifice in service to this thought, more a mere consequence. I haven’t really lost anything, as far as I can tell. I suppose it’s humbling in a way, but meh, that’s OK.

    Protection from the brutal reality of the nothing (
    I debate the need for protection against the brutality of the raw unadulterated nature. I agree that it is totally nihilistic (I’m going with existential nihilism, from my brief wiki of definitions). However, I can’t agree with your premise that this is bad, or somehow against what it is to be human. On a purely objective view, I think it’s weird that humans somehow demand this right to purpose or meaning, while dogs or worms or birds get nothing. Rocks get nothing. They’re just things, they need no purpose.
    But from my perspective, I don’t think that’s fair! I want some meaning in my life! I do feel the fear. As I get older, it can really kick me in the stomach (going for a skin cancer check, for example). I have come to realise I will die. It will happen, perhaps (in my imaginings) when I’m old. It’s a fear of something unknowable, yet extremely final. I don’t want to have to deal with it!

    But what am I going to do about it? Why should I try and imagine death, and it’s fear, when I can’t even imagine what it will be like to have a kid, or get old, or finish my PhD? These things are unknowable, (hopefully for some of them) inevitable, so what can I do but live until they happen to me? When they do, I will be full of emotions, good and bad, so death is no exception, and no doubt will be scary as fuck. I suppose that puts me into the YOLO category, except that I have and do think about it occasionally, and come to the conclusion that I still cannot change it (fatalism, baby (kinda)).

    End of Part 1.

    1. Right off the bat, let me say I was in a very bad place when I wrote this, but I'm fairly confident I can defend its premises, if not its tone. I'll try to go through each of your points individually, but at the outset I want to stress the difference between an individual's experience of faith, & the social/cultural role of faith within institutions & communities. Just because a person can be an atheist without devolving into moral nihilism doesn't imply that a society of atheists won't experience a gradual erosion of moral fiber, so this distinction is important.

      "Wonder" =/= Faith. Largely due to poor explanation on my part, you've largely done my own work for me here. You're a scientist, for you, your wonder in the material world comes from knowledge, not faith. MY wonder at the material, such as it is, DOES stem from faith, because unlike you I don't know jack shit about science. I'm not a scientist. As a knowledgeable man, you don't require faith to access a wonderment at the complexity of life or physical laws or whatever. I do - I have to have faith in Science, as passed down to me by its priesthood of scholars, researchers, etc who effectively form a priesthood.

      More importantly, this distinction isn't the right one to make. You can't derive faith in something outside of the material by examining the material in ever-increasing detail, and morality is constituted wholly outside of the material. The closest thing to a value system we've been able to derive from nature that doesn't originate in humans is processes of natural selection. Which is both a terrible way to determine moral values & more or less the guiding principle of capitalism. Makes you think.

      You might need to expand on the second point, I'm not sure exactly what you're responding to.

      There is no objective understanding, so you're safe to ignore that anyway, & you should focus on your own understanding, which is actually real. There's no "objective" reality outside your perception, & even if there was, you wouldn't be able to access it without it being filtered entirely by your perception. You can find overlapping consensus with other rational agents (we all agree, on evidence, that something exists here & it is a pizza), but even if you got everyone to agree it wouldn't become an objective truth opposed to a subjective one.

      Which is important to consider in regards to your other examples, of having children & getting PhDs - these are all things other people have done. You can't be CERTAIN of their experiential content, but less-than-certain is miles away from a total absence of knowledge, which is what death represents. Literally no one has any idea whatsoever what death represents, whereas in my experience there's no shortage of information of various levels of reliability on child-having & old-getting. Again, while I would certainly NOT encourage you to shit your pants at the prospect of death, fatalism on a mass scale doesn't create a healthy society, which in turn doesn't encourage a healthy citizenry. In fact, it encourages one like the one we have: short-sighted, self-interested, and avoidant. Of course you're going to have to live until it happens, but without getting into a consideration of abstract moral values, purely pragmatically a citizenry of people wandering around wallowing in an enforced avoidance of death as a concept is just horrible.

  2. Part 2.

    No God, so go wild!
    I think these are relatively fair points, but atrocities have been done regardless of faith or no. To say that faith in final judgement acts as a deterrent is probably only true for like 10% of the faithful, and everyone else does what it convenient. Doesn’t make it good or right, though.
    I did find your point about needing moral guidance interesting - I hadn’t considered it like this. I too thought it was daft to require moral guidance from above, I can think for myself, thank you very much. But yeah, you’re right, I do, and society does, because some of the stuff going on now is outrageously crazy, and I don’t care much. But I mean… what are we going to do about it? It’s not going to come from the heavens. Surely acknowledgement of this need is better than mixed interpreted ye olde’ faith from various religions? I would suggest (not strongly) that legacy is as powerful as faith to prompt action (“we can’t leave this planet like this for our kids”, “I didn’t kill the guy because I don’t want my children to remember me like that”) (remember that I don’t think faith is particularly strong either). While it’s true that a neoatheist could deny legacy as a motivator (since once they die, they don’t give an F), I would guess it’s a pretty strong societal and biological urge.

    Anyway, good read! Thanks.

    1. It is absolutely necessary for atheists of all shades to acknowledge that level of atrocity in the last 200 years outshines everything that came before like, to borrow my own metaphor, a candle-flame beside a volcano. The mechanised slaughter of the Holocaust & the unleashing of nuclear weapons simply ARE unlike anything that preceded them, they are a new category. This assumption that people have always been awful but now we just have better tools is a) wrong, & b) besides the point. Even if it weren't wrong & you want to believe that the religious societies of the past would've happily fed people into killing machines on the basis of ethnicity (despite ethnicity not being a concept that existed prior to the Enlightenment), the age of secularism & the age of science aren't separable, they didn't come along together by pure coincidence. If you want to argue that it IS, the burden of proof really falls on the atheist to explain why the rise of their ideology coincided so directly with such a drastic increase in evil.

      As to your last point, what of the childless people? Why should they care for the future, even if this WAS a sufficient motive for child-havers, which our non-response to climate catastrophe strongly implies it isn't? Even if we overlook all that, as you more or less suggested, it isn't the same as a hard doctrine.

      I agree completely that looking to the faiths of the past isn't going to provide our answer, but my entire point for this post was that the strident insistence of atheists that no answer be sought at all is a major contributing factor to our society's ills. The relationship is murky as I'm using "atheist" the identity a bit synonymously with "secularism" the political ideal, but for all purposes relevant to this discussion, they're structures that support & encourage each other. This is why the repudiation of atheism as an organised ideology, as opposed to simply describing the circumstance of being faithless, is to me such an important one. It's not that atheists should be reviled or feared or blamed, it's that the state of "atheism" itself should be a negative position to be in, akin to a numbness or absence of something necessary.

      Just because grief can drive people to suicide is no reason to denounce sadness, & that angry people commit murder is no reason to never get angry. In the same way, the failures & misdeeds of religions is no reason to decry the very concept of faith, or take pride in ones inability to experience it.

    2. Apologies for the terrible state of these comments, this tiny box doesn't really let you read over what you've written.